A Nondiplomat at a Nonembassy in Taiwan

In Taiwan I had to get used to the unusual situation of conducting diplomacy in a country with which America wasn’t supposed to have diplomatic relations. To wit, at AIT [American Institute in Taiwan] we were officially consultants under contract to the State Department working in an unofficial capacity at a nonembassy to advance America’s interests in Taiwan. It was a mouthful, and the semantics and diplomatic gyrations that American representatives in Taiwan had to go through were at times humorous, at times frustrating.

Starting with the mundane, we had to develop a new vocabulary to conduct diplomacy. The embassy became an institute in 1979, and I was its second director, following veteran diplomat and fellow China hand Chuck Cross. At the institute, there were no American flags flying, no national days celebrated, nor Marines in red, white, and blue. Instead of a political section, we had a general affairs section or GAS, perhaps an appropriate acronym for political reporting. Rather than a consular section, there was a travel service section. In our daily lives, we had to be careful to adhere to certain rules. If I were addressed by a Taiwanese journalist as ambassador, I had to ignore him. If at some function or performance we were seated in the special section reserved for diplomats, we had to suggest that this was not quite right. Most of the time we ended up sitting there anyway. Should the agressive Taiwanese press have caught wind of any protocol slipup on our part and used it to trumpet recognition of an upgrading of the relationship, we would have caught hell from both Washington and Peking.

The most frustrating part was that we were prohibited from meeting with Taiwanese Foreign Ministry and Defense officials as well as with the president himself in their offices, nor could they visit us in ours. We could meet with a designated group of Taiwanese foreign service officers who staffed AIT’s counterpart organization on the Taiwan side. But we had to transact the majority of our discussions in other venues, like restaurants, country clubs, golf courses, and private homes. Perhaps the most serious casualty of such restrictions was our waistlines. Dinners and cocktail parties–the staple of most diplomatic posts–took on added importance in Taiwan. A rich Chinese diet can wreak havoc with an American-fed body, as it did with mine.

SOURCE: China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia, by James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley (PublicAffairs, 2004), pp. 238-239

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